I was writing a bio of myself yesterday and was reminded of this incident: when I was a child we would go every summer to our grandparents’ house in Sussex. It was near Littlehampton, though emphatically not in that garish land of funfair and speedboats but down the coast in a village called Rustington. When I was quite small – about four or five – I discovered that if you went across the water you would get to France. I quite liked the idea of visiting France, and decided to take a trip there. How far could it be? I set my face to the waves and started walking, determined to get there under my own steam. How far I would have got before realising the water got a bit deep, I don’t know – but before I could get there my father rushed in and plucked me from the waves like Jesus saving Peter – except that I hadn’t asked to be saved – and plonked me back down on the sand. I was furious, and set off again immediately to walk to France. This scenario was repeated several times before I finally gave in – and whether it was that I didn’t explain to my parents that I wanted to walk to France, or whether they didn’t care what I was trying to do, it was the first of a series of ‘you can’ts’ dished out by people in authority. Of course they didn’t understand, but in my own parenting I have tried to let my children learn their own limitations rather than telling them ‘you can’t’. A few years after the Canute incident, my mother was giving me the ‘stranger danger’ talk:
‘What would you do if a big man came up to you in the street and wouldn’t let you pass?’ she asked me. I knew the answer to that one. ‘I’d knock him down,’ I answered without hesitation. ‘But you can’t!’ she replied, aghast.
I know she was just trying to keep me safe but I wish she hadn’t – a show of spirit often works far better in those situations than just being afraid. Then again, perhaps if I’d tried to knock the man down and found how hard it was, perhaps I’d have been even more frightened. But at least I’d have found out for myself…
Parenting is hard. I expect my parents would have experienced some degree of schadenfreude the other day if they’d heard Daniel say he wished we’d sent him to school…
But it’s time to let go of these things, for today is Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, when Jews atone for the wrong they have done others and let go of the wrong others have done them. I like the idea of having one day a year when you do this: it’s a bit like the Spanish custom of having one day a year when you put all your unwanted furniture out on the street and everyone goes out and takes what they want.
But only a bit.